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Nemtsov's death 'serves as a wake-up call'

Kersten Knipp / ewMarch 1, 2015

In the murder of Boris Nemtsov, publicist Sergey Lagodinsky sees an escalation of political violence. At the same time, though, he views the murder as an opportunity for the Russian government to change its course.

A march honoring Nemtsov in Moscow
Image: DW/V.Izotov

DW: Following the murder, various people have commented that Putin is at least indirectly responsible for it, because he created a political climate that makes these kinds of assassinations possible. What's your view on this accusation?

Sergey Lagodinsky: This is true. The government silences voices of opposition and has launched a tough campaign against its critics. Even before the Ukraine crisis, this campaign was already fueled by the media and included personal attacks on specific people. In this regard, the Kremlin has a high level of political responsibility for the crime.

Nemtsov and many other opposition politicians were systematically vilified and discredited. Due to his criticism of Russia's Ukraine policy, he was not only presented as an enemy of the regime but also of the nation and the people. Critics like him have been portrayed as the "fifth column" [secret subversive groups that seek a political overthrow], and through this have been indirectly declared as outlawed.

How do you explain this harsh political climate? What does Putin want to achieve?

Already before the Ukraine crisis, Putin was under pressure due to the economic situation in Russia. The country's main source of income is its oil and other natural resources. However, it hasn't invested in a manufacturing industry or in new technologies. At some point it wasn't possible anymore for Putin to buy the support of the people.

In addition to this, there were the mass demonstrations between 2011 and 2013. In light of the growing civil society and the flagging economy, they made the government realize that it couldn't stay in power unless it tightened a few screws. And this is exactly what it did: everyone involved in such demonstrations was unlawfully oppressed. Opponents such as Alexei Navalny and others have been subjected to politically motivated persecution.

In addition to all this came the fear sparked by "Maidan" - the orange revolution inspired by the West that took place in Ukraine.

What role does the Ukraine crisis play in this?

A major one. When Ukraine started considering a split off, this marked the culmination of the Kremlin's fears. It decided on military escalation. This of course also served as a means to rally domestic support. The unison between the media and the oppression apparatus functioned perfectly.

As a result, Putin enjoys the support of 80 percent of the population. Something like this is only possible when one not only looks outwards but also inwards, finding enemies on home soil. People like Nemtsov are perfect candidates for this role. With him there, you can heavily criticize the failed liberalization of the 1990s, regardless of the fact that Putin played a part in it too.

Sergey Lagodinsky
Lagodinsky sees the situation as both a threat and an opportunityImage: S.Lagodinsky

Nemtsov had a clearly pro-Western attitude. For this reason it is possible to take on an anti-Western stance by criticizing him. And through him you can demonize alleged economic liberalism, ignoring the fact that Putin himself pursues a liberal course. He makes others responsible for it though - and with it for the destruction of the country as well. He and his people, on the other hand, can present themselves as the "good ones" - the ones that guarantee stability.

What does Nemtsov's murder mean for the opposition? How could they deal with it in the future?

There has been an effort to intimidate the opposition. It has also now been made clear that the opposition's representatives are outlaws. The system can do whatever it wants with them, including physical elimination. This hasn't been the case until now. Of course, there have been some horrific murders of journalists, but the murder of an opposition politician is something new. Until now they have been thrown into jail but not shot, so in this regard a new level has been reached.

Despite this, I believe that the murder also creates an opportunity in the sense that it serves as a wake-up call to the more informed segment of the population - the one that makes use of news sources beyond Russian television. These people could understand that nothing is more important right now than halting the escalation. Because now it's plain to see what such emotional provocation leads to.

Could the government also draw conclusions from the assassination?

Yes. The murder could give Putin a reason to not target the opposition as much anymore but rather the nationalists and the militant anti-Maidan forces in Russia. After all, these groups are putting him under pressure. At the anti-Maidan demonstrations some days ago, nationalistic and contemptuous slogans could be heard, and they were welcomed by the country's political elite. Putin can't just abandon that stance, but now the government could put its mind to pursuing a de-escalation course. That won't lead to a democratic situation. But perhaps this tragic event can prompt the government to rethink things.

Dr. Sergey Lagodinsky (born 1975) is a lawyer and publicist. He moved to Germany from Russia at the age of 18.